Refugee crisis: Escaping Syria to Europe’s unknown

Breakdown of cohesion among EU nations means time is running out to get a grip on the escalating refugee situation.

greece fugees
Syrian refugees disembark from a ferry at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece [Yannis Kolesidis/EPA]

Piraeus, Greece – Mohammad Saadalden set off for Germany from his war-torn neighbourhood in Damascus with a group of friends and relatives on September 11.

An accountant, Saadalden, 23, arrived in Greece on a diesel-chugging ferry on Saturday, alongside thousands of others seeking refuge from the war in Syria and other conflict-ridden countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just to get this far, he paid nearly $600 to smugglers to help him dodge heat-sensitive cameras, burly border police, and razor-wire fencing the border with Turkey.

He slept rough, and, like many others, Saadalden risked a perilous crossing with nearly 60 scared people crammed together on a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean – a desperate journey that has killed nearly 3,000 people so far this year, according to the United Nations. 

Mohammad Saadalden [Simon Marks/Al Jazeera]
Mohammad Saadalden [Simon Marks/Al Jazeera]

Unlike the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria who have passports, Saadalden is Palestinian and so, only holds a bright-blue booklet that states he is a Palestinian refugee living in Syria.

“The only place where we can go is Palestine – and we can’t even go there,” he said in recognition of the fact his homeland has yet to be granted statehood.

His sojourn feels like history repeating itself, he told Al Jazeera. His grandfather fled Palestine in 1948 during the first Arab-Israeli war and ended up never going back.

“[He] thought he would be in Syria for just one week or a couple of days, and then he would go back. In the end, he waited one year, then two years. Then he stayed forever,” Saadalden said.

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As countries in Europe tighten their borders, access to the continent through Hungary has essentially been blocked and routes through Serbia and Slovenia are also being denied. People like Saadalden are increasingly unsure of where to go.

EU interior ministers are holding talks in Brussels on Tuesday on how to relocate 120,000 refugees across Europe. Discussions take place ahead of an emergency summit by European leaders on Wednesday.

Eastern European countries are vehemently opposing quotas that would force them to accept refugees.

The breakdown of cohesion in Europe – and particularly among the Balkan states – has driven thousands into Croatia and pushed the UN on Friday to warn that time is “running out for Europe to resolve the current refugee crisis”. Rights workers say the lack of common strategy in the region has exacerbated the situation.

The crisis has further demonstrated deep divisions inside the EU on a key issue at a time when right-wing parties in countries such as France appear to be on the rise.

In Greece, migrants are registered on the islands before being abandoned and left to their own devices. The only help many are given is from Vodafone telecom agents, who are out in force at the port in Piraeus to sell SIM cards and phone credit to desperate customers.

Vodafone vendors soliciting customers among the refugees [Simon Marks/Al Jazeera]
Vodafone vendors soliciting customers among the refugees [Simon Marks/Al Jazeera]

“The EU must indeed demonstrate its founding values by recognising the humanity and dignity of migrant persons by providing a united and effective response to their plea for protection and assistance,” said Daisy Schmitt, programme officer for migrant rights at the International Federation for Human Rights in Geneva.

“Even if the European Council of October finds a humane solution to the European migration policy crisis, it will be late, and from what we have heard … it is not going in the right direction.”

“The EU must dismiss once and for all the piecemeal approach that has characterised its intervention so far and adopt a common strategy,” Schmitt added. 

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Also stepping off the ferry at the port in Piraeus was Ahmed, a friend of Saadalden, who declined to give his surname fearing Syrian government reprisals against his family members still in Damascus.

He fled the Syrian capital after a bomb exploded outside his home two weeks ago, wounding several people.


“Dying in Syria is not a solution,” Ahmed said shortly after arriving in Piraeus. “I have friends in Germany. I have friends in Sweden and Holland. We Syrians go everywhere.”

Ahmed said he wants to go to Sweden because he heard the government there processes asylum requests quicker than elsewhere. He insisted refugees will not just sit back and merely accept state handouts if provided the opportunity to settle in Europe.

He has a wide, friendly smile and serious cuts on his arms and hands from climbing through razor wire on the border with Turkey.

Refugees leaving Syria and arriving in Greece express a mixture of relief after having left their war-stricken countries and apprehensions towards the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Despite efforts by the EU border agency, Frontex, to deploy screening and debriefing experts, as well as interpreters on the Greek islands, it’s impossible to find anyone who knows what to do upon entering the country, even after being registered.

RELATED: Syrian refugees: A catastrophe in numbers

Meanwhile, fears are growing that the situation could get worse. Some observers say the window of opportunity is narrowing to cross the sea from Turkey into Greece with the weather changing. Millions of refugees living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey could suddenly decide to head towards Europe in the coming weeks.

“They might start leaving in even greater numbers and start arriving in Greece,” said a seasoned EU diplomat in Athens, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Slovenia takes organised approach to welcoming refugees

He noted that as border closures spread south towards countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia and Macedonia, the crisis in Greece could escalate.

“Everything will be bottlenecked in Greece” if Europe does not arrive at a solution soon, the diplomat warned.

Greece, which is undergoing an economic recession and has limited resources, is currently at a dead end on working out how to deal with the crisis.

Central squares in the capital are already overcome with refugees, and black market bus journeys have popped up in Athens, channelling those entering the country northwards at exorbitant prices.

Saadalden and his friends each paid 60 euros ($67) on Saturday to a man working in a print shop, who walked 200 metres down the street with them before darting into a hookah bar, where tickets were issued for them to travel to Thessaloniki, 500km north of Athens.

Samir Asadi, a teacher and another member of the group, complained about the extortionate travel price.

“If you want to go quickly, you’ve got to pay. They abuse us even when we’re down,” Asadi said. “I hope we’ll have enough money for the rest of the journey.”

Source: Al Jazeera